Tag Archives: dams

Conservation and Development in Patagonia: An Alternative Vision

“Well what happens when you get to the edge of the cliff.  Do you take one step forward or do 180° turn and take one step forward?  Which way are you going?  Which is progress?  The solution to many of the world’s problems maybe to turn around and to take a forward step.  You can’t just keep trying to make a flawed system work.”

–Yvon Chouinard

I’ve been taking a bit of a break in February from rephotography to explore the current state of conservation in Patagonia.  Right now is a fascinating time to be here as this region faces many options for future development.

The big question here and in many other places in the world is: How can a country that is faced with national and international development pressures develop in a way that respects the local environment and people while still contributing to the national economy and allowing the improvements in quality of life that the people want?

At the beginning of February I walked the Aysen Glacier Trail (AGT) with Jonathan Leidich, founder and guide of Patagonia Adventure Expeditions.  He came to Chile about 20 years ago looking for a blank spot on the map and found that in Puerto Bertrand.  Over the last two decades of living there he has developed a deep connection to the town and with gauchos living in remote valleys, a life virtually unchanged in the last century.  Through working with these rural estancias he has built a trail that follows the watershed loop from the Northern Patagonia Ice Field to the Baker River.  In walking up windswept valleys, crossing a major glacier, passing active glacier research sites, and ending at Sol de Mayo, his working ranch 35km from the nearest road, guests get a deep experience of “real” Patagonia.

It is immediately clear that Jonathan is not interested in standard tourism development.  His trips are limited to six guests at a time and the infrastructure is minimal to give guests a real experience interacting with the beauty and the challenges of Patagonia.  He works with scientists to support cutting edge research in geology and ecology, and works with education groups to bring students into the mountains to learn about glaciers and the beginnings of watersheds.

Just across the Rio Baker valley from the Aysen Glacier Trail is the Future Patagonia National Park.  This former estancia, Valle Chacabuco, was purchased by Kris Tompkins and the organization Conservacion Patagonica.  They have been removing the fences and ranch infrastructure to restore native habitat and building up infrastructure to turn it over to the Chilean government as a national park.  A huge undertaking, and one that is faced with many difficulties, from public acceptance to having no precedent for restoring Patagonian grasslans.  They are working on developing a volunteer program to get visitors, mostly Chileans, involved in the restoration of the park with the hope that in the future these people will be advocates for it’s preservation.  Their goal is to get this park to be as large of a draw as Torres del Paine, creating jobs in the local economy in a way that does not depend on resource extraction.

This all is set in a background of the recent protests in the Aysen Region of Chile where people are protesting about a wide range of things from the development of international fishing and the proposed construction of five major dams to high gas prices.  Things are changing in Aysen and clearly the residents do not like how they are changing.

How does this all fit together?  In a region with significant natural resources, it either faces continued development of hydroelectric dams, mines, tree plantations, and salmon farming or it needs to figure out a more sustainable way to contribute to the economy of Chile.  An alternative vision to an economy based on resource extraction would be an economy based on resource enjoyment.  By developing infrastructure to allow large scale tourism, the Aysen region has the potential to become one of the most popular areas in Chile and Argentina.While that would require sacrificing the quiet nature of the region, people will have to decide.

We all share a future together.  How do we want that future to be?

 

 

 

*Note about photographs –  You may notice JB watermarks appearing on photographs throughout this site.  I’m not trying to prevent people from enjoying my work, I’ve just had some issues with photo rights.  Please contact me at jonathan.at.alpineamericas.com if you are interested in purchasing prints of any of these photos.

Storm over the Rio Baker

Yes, our project is focused on the changes happening in glaciers and alpine ecosystems due to global climate change.  This is the core of what we do, but the reason why most people really care about this is the effects it has on populations.  As our climate changes it will cause dramatic and unpredictable hydrological, social, and ecological changes.  The Rio Baker in the Aysen region of Chile is a focal point for all of these issues. 

The Baker River, the largest river in Chile by volume, flows out of Lago General Carrera.  Fed by glacial melt coming off the Northern Patagonia Ice Field, the second largest ice mass outside of the polar regions, it winds down through lakes and valleys before flowing into the ocean in the town of Tortel.  The controversy surrounds a project to build five hydroelectric dams by the multinational power company hidroAysen on this river, and a subsequent 1,200 miles of high-voltage power lines necessary to distribute the power up to Santiago, Chile.

In this process, we are trying to not take the role of advocates against the dams.  We are hoping to understand this controversy better and be able to share the realities of what this means for the river ecosystem and for the communities involved in this.  To see more photos visit our gallery on Facebook.From talking to people in the area there is a strong division between the people who support that construction of the dams and those who are opposed.  Because the Chilean economy and education systems are highly privatized, many families have trouble affording education for their children or being able to make a living in these rural areas.  When hidroAyisen offers them $400,000 US or more to buy their land to put a power line across it, few people can afford not to take that offer.  At the same time many people see the potential to work building the dams, roads, power lines, and other infrastructure that will accompany this project and see it as a much needed boost to the local economy.  To continue growing its economy, particularly the highly lucrative copper mining in the north, Chile believes it will need to double it’s energy capacity in the next 15 years.  The hidroAysen project would supply 35% of the current total energy capacity of Chile, and would help reduce the dependence on neighboring Argenitna for natural gas imports.

The people who oppose it say it will destroy the things that make this remote area of Patagonia special and worth living in or visiting.  Because the hydroelectric companies own a significant portion of the total water rights to the Baker River, many farmers will no longer be allowed to irrigate their land if hydroAysen actually claims their water rights.  Furthermore, if they are able to secure the right of way for the 1,200 miles of power lines, the rights to cut the trees and the mineral rights underneath will be allocated to other companies to develop creating one of the largest single clear-cuts in the world.  For the local guides who run rafting trips on this spectacular section of the Baker River, they will have to switch to kayaking on a lake as the upper Baker River dam site will inundate these popular class IV and V rapids.

If this wasn’t enough, the biggest problem is that hydroAysen has not studied the volatility of the upstream glaciers at all.  The Colonia Glacier flows off the Northern Patagonia Ice Field and blocks the flow of a small river.  This creates a natural dam of ice.  When the lake fills up and builds up enough pressure it breaks through the ice holding it back releasing a flood of water down towards the Baker River.  As the Colonia Glacier retreats due to global warming these floods, called Glacier Lake Outburst Floods or GLOF’s, are only expected to get bigger.  Not only would these contribute to filling the downstream reservoirs with sediments very rapidly, if one of these GLOF’s caused a failure of a dam on the Baker River the flood would completely wipe out many homes, including the entire town of Tortel.

As it currently stands, the construction of these dams has been approved by the Chilean government, but are being held up by a case in the supreme court.  A decision is expected on this in the next few months.  What does the future hold for these dams?  No one really seems to have any idea what the ultimate decision will be, but we will continue talking to people and learning more about this.  If a decision is made we can only hope it will be well informed.